Ukrainian students, refugees host prayer vigil on invasion anniversary: ‘I will remember this all my life’

St. Nicholas Cathedral School has welcomed dozens of Ukranian refugees to its student body this year.

SHARE Ukrainian students, refugees host prayer vigil on invasion anniversary: ‘I will remember this all my life’
Oksana Mazur (center) and the rest of the choir at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village sing the Ukrainian national anthem during a vigil on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023 marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Oksana Mazur (center) and the rest of the choir at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village sing the Ukrainian national anthem during a vigil on Friday marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

One year after Russia invaded Ukraine, 13-year-old Oksana Mazur stood surrounded by peers in a Chicago auditorium, a prayer candle clutched to her chest, belting out the Ukrainian national anthem.

In April, Mazur had been forced to leave Ternopil, in western Ukraine, after Russia invaded. She’s one of 75 students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village who arrived from Ukraine within the last year. 

St. Nicholas hosted a prayer vigil Friday to mark and mourn the first anniversary of the invasion.

Conducted in both English and Ukrainian, the vigil was organized by eighth-grade students at St. Nicholas. The class invited refugees in the community to share their stories.

Each new speaker took up a cry of “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”), a slogan that began as a military battle cry.

“We wanted to remind people that we’re still here, and that everyone in Ukraine is still facing a lot of hardships,” said eighth-grader Olena Dub, who moved to Chicago from Ternopil five years ago.

Olena Raczkiewycz, who arrived in Chicago in March, fled from Kyiv, Ukraine after she woke up one morning to the sound of bombs exploding.

“I asked my kids to go to the bathroom and cover [their] heads,” Raczkiewycz said. “I remember everything.”

Raczkiewycz, her husband and her two children relied heavily on aid from St. Nicholas and the community, she said, having left most of their belongings behind. 

“A couple pairs of jeans and a couple suitcases, and that’s it,” Raczkiewycz said.

The choir at St. Nicholas Cathedral School sings a hymn during a vigil for the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The choir at St. Nicholas Cathedral School sings a hymn during a vigil for the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

They are among about 250,000 Ukrainian refugees who arrived in the United States over the last year; 10% live in Chicago.

In the past year, the curriculum at St. Nicholas has been adapted to support refugees and their families. 

With support from the Ukrainian American Heritage Foundation, the Big Shoulders Fund and other local organizations, the school added English lessons, social services and art therapy. An extra classroom is in the works, Cirilli said. 

“We continuously have people ringing the doorbell, calling the school, wanting to enroll their students,” Cirilli said. 

Building a new life in Chicago — and adjusting to American customs — has been difficult for Mazur.

“It has been so terrible, because I [left] my home, my friends, my school,” Mazur told the Sun-Times. But Olena Dub and other students in her class “helped me sometimes forget about the events that are taking place.” 

The choir at St. Nicholas Cathedral School sang the Ukrainian national anthem during a vigil on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

The choir at St. Nicholas Cathedral School sang the Ukrainian national anthem during Friday’s vigil.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The vigil concluded with a surprise performance by Trioda, a Ukrainian vocal trio once featured on Ukrainian X-Factor. The group, which now tours to raise funds and awareness for Ukrainian refugees, brought some to tears.

“When we sing the anthem today, I feel old feelings that people felt a hundred years ago,” Mazur said.

As students prayed and candles burned, teachers passed out white and yellow roses to the 75 recent arrivals, symbolizing solidarity.

“People are looking at our brothers and sisters in Ukraine who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the truth, for freedom,” said Archbishop Borys Gudziak. “And that is for whom we pray.”

Children’s drawings and messages of support for Ukraine, glued to a poster at St. Nicholas Cathedral School.

Children’s drawings and messages of support for Ukraine, glued to a poster at St. Nicholas Cathedral School.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Some younger students have found it easier to adjust to Chicago, said Mazur. She remembers life back home more clearly — as well as the trauma of fleeing. 

“Until [the war] ends, all Ukrainians will feel terrible,” Mazur told the Sun-Times. “I will remember this all my life.” 

St. Nicholas staff are still collecting donations for tuition, school supplies and other necessities.

“We’re looking at probably another school year in the same sort of situation, supporting these students so that they can attend our school,” Cirilli said. 

Rally for Ukraine

Later Friday, hundreds gathered outside Saints Volodymyr & Olha Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village for a rally organized by the Illinois chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

Last year, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attended a rally at the church in solidarity with Ukrainians who’d just been thrust into war. 

“We must continue to fight on,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot urged the crowd. “To support the people in Ukraine but also to welcome the families who are here, the mothers and their children who have come to us seeking shelter, freedom, support and love.”

A rally marking the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was held Friday night outside Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village.

A rally marking the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was held Friday night outside Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Olga Libei, 27, one of those mothers, was there Friday with her 3-year-old daughter, Evelina. They came fled Ukraine about six months ago. 

Her husband, Evelina’s father, was killed defending Mariupol.

“We left my parents and friends,” Libei said. “My heart is crying every day. It’s hard. We believe in Ukraine. Our people will be free.”

Olga Libei holds her 3-year-old daughter Evelina Libei during a rally and vigil Friday outside Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Olga Libei holds her 3-year-old daughter Evelina Libei during a rally and vigil Friday outside Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Other refugees also attended the rally.

“This is a really painful situation,” said Kate, a 20-year-old psychology student at Malcolm X College, who fled Ukraine six months ago. She declined to give her last name.

“For everybody [who is] Ukrainian, today is a sad day.”

At the rally, she met Maria, a 22-year-old who fled Ukraine after her family’s home was damaged by explosives. 

The two bonded over their shared experience found out they were from similar areas of the country.

Oksana Lukinova of Vernon Hills moved to the United States from Ukraine 16 years ago. She attended the rally with her 5-year-old son, Eugene, and her father, Taras Rymauk. He’s visited Ukraine several times to help, such as by providing meals to front-line fighters.

“It’s been painful,” Lukinova said. Her brother is still fighting in Ukraine, she said, and believes their country won’t make it “without help from countries like the U.S.”

A rally marking the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was held Friday night outside Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village.

Hundreds attended a rally Friday night in Ukrainian Village marking the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The rally was held outside Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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